Book review: The Bully Pulpit

I love how Doris Kearns Goodwin develops evocative themes from history. Team of Rivals is so much more than a biography of Abraham Lincoln or yet another examination of the Civil War years. In the same manner, The Bully Pulpit is no mere biography, but a thought-provoking study of a dominant theme of an era – the evolution of Progressivism from three distinct points of view over the course of a dozen years. In the process, Goodwin actually provides biographies not only of the main characters of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, but also of each member of the crew of muckraking journalists who together form a third leg in the stool of Goodwin’s reflection — Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Baker, William Allen White, S.S. McClure and others.  This is a compelling narrative, carefully stitched together so that we can watch the Progressive movement ebb and flow even as we watch the natural changes take place in the lives of the book’s central figures.  And it is told with such depth and warmth that a sensitive reader cannot avoid an emotional response to the dominant events of the book’s conclusion.

It’s interesting how sometimes one’s reading just coincidentally follows a certain pattern, and that has been the case for me with some of the most significant books I’ve read this year.  The Bully Pulpit is by far the best of them, but it dovetails neatly into two other memorable, if not always satisfying, books that dominated my reading from the past year — Wilson by A. Scott Berg, a more than serviceable biography which I began first and finished last ; and Dead Wake: The Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson, which I read early in the summer and found impressively researched but not especially compellingly told.  Together, though, all three books, provided a richly detailed picture of an era of American history that I previously, and ignorantly, had considered somewhat insignificant and uninspiring.

And it’s Goodwin’s piece that most thoroughly evokes the dynamic shift in popular thinking that defines the era. Most interestingly, it also is a book with myriad parallels to our own time — a highly polarized and partisan political environment, overriding economic conflicts, cries of “class warfare”  amid a constantly increasing gulf between the disrespected poor and the extremely rich and divisive social debates over such topics as women’s rights, respect for minorities, conservation, government regulation of business and the balance of labor and management interests in the development of major corporations. Among the many fascinating images of the time is the intriguing split within the Republican Party between social progressives like Roosevelt and Taft and laissez faire corporate elitists. Goodwin’s study of the presidential campaign of 1912, featuring not just the GOP-Bull Moose Party split that handed Wilson the presidency but also the important emergence of the Fighting Bob LaFollett liberalism that emphasized the disruptive divisions developing in Republican thinking.

There is in Goodwin’s telling, an apparent underlying assumption that Progressivism is a social “good” whose inevitability was affected in one way or another by each of the central characters.  To a certain degree, the merits of individual seem tied to their success at advancing the Progressive cause. The merits of the Progressive movement – then as now – are certainly debatable, though I personally found the book strengthened my own pre-existing inclinations toward a government that protects the poor, controls the ability of fortunate classes to dominate society and politics and strives to protect the natural environment. In particular, I couldn’t help identifying with and admiring the genial Taft, who struck me as another representative of so many leaders (think, Jimmy Carter) whom I have admired as model human beings of considerable accomplishment but underappreciated because people are more drawn to flamboyance and bluster than to calm, deliberate cooperation. For that reason, Roosevelt certainly stands out in the public mind far more than Taft, though one could argue after reading Goodwin’s account that Taft was in fact more successful at achieving Progressive results than Roosevelt. He was certainly a man of more dignity and class.

But that theme is just one of many reflections inspired by this vivid portrait of an era that laid the foundations for many of the social ideals we now take for granted – and continue to debate.  In short, The Bully Pulpit is not just a rich and fascinating description of a particular time in history; it’s also a mirror of contemporary life, with parallels and lessons that can and should enrich our understanding of and our debates about the central issues of our own era.